Beyond the dreaming spires

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Breaking out of the Oxford bubble

 

I’ve lost count of the number of times these words, or a similar selection, were said to me during my final year at Oxford. “The world is your oyster, you can do whatever you want to do!” They were usually delivered to me by a well-meaning human, ranging from close family members to the sort of distant relatives that pop up at family gatherings and try to catch up on 10 years of life in as many minutes. I began to dread these conversations, whilst in the moment remaining charming, and attempting to deliver some version of truth about my future plans to the person in question.

Needless to say, for those of us coming out of Oxford, expectations are high. Multiply that by being a woman, in STEM and being at least a bit of a perfectionist and the expectations for future me climbed to new heights. Visions that those around me had for my future headed towards the UN, PhDs or writing books and had the opposite effect of motivating me towards those places. In the worst case making me anxious about being good enough and achieving enough with my future. In the next 1000 words, I’d like to reassure other Oxford students that not knowing where you’re going is fine, that it’s okay not to break world records or run the country, and to delve into why so many of us leave Oxford feeling like we need to continue constantly achieving. Before I start, I want to recognise that graduating from Oxford does put you in a very privileged position, and that’s not something I’m ungrateful for, and equally that this isn’t something that’s unique to this institution. Here we go.

Achievements are easy in Oxford. Let me explain what I’m trying to say. Oxford is and always will be full of opportunities; if you’ve got an interest, Oxford’s got it covered. Within these clubs and societies and beyond there are positions of responsibility to be held, awards to be won and blues to be chased. I remember often wondering, often late at night, and often with some neglected work to be completed in an unachievable time frame, why I had laden myself so heavily with positions and roles and clubs. I reminded myself that a) these were the things that kept me sane, and b) this counted towards CV building and being an employable future me. Even regular essays and assignments provided reward, motivation or something to strive to. Take the student out of Oxford and into the real world and I slowly found a feeling growing which took a while to recognise, even longer to become familiar with, and one which I’ve only recently got a handle on.

I studied biological sciences. I wear my badge of being a woman in science with pride, but will openly admit that knowing a little about a lot (I can name more species of beetle than the average person) has not come of a huge amount of use in my life outside the Oxford bubble. Fast forward a year and a half from graduating and I found myself in a training session in my new job on performing under pressure. During the workshop, we investigated personality types and stressors and at one point were asked “when was the last time you had an unscheduled weekend?”. The thought alone put a little anxiety into my stomach. A typical weekend for me involved trying to do at least 10 more things than is actually achievable and getting at least a little more exhausted in the process than I’d like to be.

 

At one point I was asked “when was the last time you had an unscheduled weekend?”. The thought alone put a little anxiety in my stomach

 

I think the reason why I had this feeling comes back, at least in part, to Oxford. Oxford students, to generalise, are ambitious. For the vast majority of us, getting there wasn’t easy and getting through it is even less so. My experience of Oxford cultivated this ambition and resulted in me pushing myself incredibly hard in all aspects of my student life. I’m aware that that’s not the case for everyone, and if you’re one of the few who had something resembling a healthy work/life balance as an Oxford undergrad then I salute you. I wasn’t. My personal tutor raised a concept with us in our very first term that has stuck with me. This new idea was called “Dead Time”. It sounds horrible right? Like something you really want to be rid of. Dead Time was the description given to any time you weren’t actively doing or achieving and is probably best described by the sentence “If you’re going to relax, you need to relax properly and well.” This was a gem given by my personal tutor and one that’s stuck around a little too well. Despite good intentions, I believe these sorts of ideas are what lead to the guilt and anxiety I’m aware a lot of Oxford students feel when they’re not being 110% productive, and I think that’s something which is hard to avoid when you’re surrounded by some of the best and brightest young people the planet has to offer. Either way, a year and a half out of Oxford and I still find myself trying to be productive at least 90% of the time.

Perhaps another part of this puzzle is the people around you. I discussed these ideas with a close friend from Oxford last week and had a moment of MY GOD OTHER PEOPLE THINK THIS TOO. Which led in turn to this moment of I’M GOING TO WRITE THIS DOWN. It’s 2018 and it’s easier than ever to keep in touch with our cohorts from university. I like to think I keep a fairly streamlined social media but even with that, and with the broad spectrum of sites like LinkedIn, exposure to the super-successful of your peers is inevitable. It’s part of what you sign up for when you arrive. Oxford is famed for nurturing the futures researchers, politicians, public speakers and all other varieties of high-flyer. The part that comes as a surprise, but perhaps shouldn’t have, is that staying in social-media touch with these people might not always be the healthiest option. In addition, it’s likely that those people running the planet two years down the line from graduation are going to be the most active sharers on social media and it’s easy to settle into a dejected mindset of underachievement. I personally, have compared myself with my set of these people and have come away feeling like I should be out there, writing a book or several, winning awards, delivering inspirational public speeches, or advising governments. These are all things peers of mine have done, and I’m incredibly proud of them, but it would be impractical for all Oxford graduates to have a go running the country. The truth is that most of us won’t. That’s great too, and still worth celebrating. There’s definitely something to be said for recognising achievements, however big or small, which don’t come with plaques, trophies, or certificates.

I suppose my main points are these, and I hope this provides some solace to finalists, part finalists or anyone who’s having a bit of a future based fret. Firstly, don’t panic if you don’t know where you’re going. Brilliant if you do, but from experience with my peers, most people find it even if they try a few things first. You’ve got lots of time to figure this out and despite my dislike of the Oyster saying, there are opportunities everywhere for you. Secondly, be kind to yourself during this process. Not everyone is able to juggle work, hobbies, friends, sleep, and finals revision with say PhD or job applications and waiting a year and having a think or doing some things that have been on your to do list for some time will do you no harm (in my opinion: I spent 5 months in the alps playing in the snow last year), it might even help to have some time away to think.

 

Not everyone is able to juggle work, hobbies, friends, sleep, and finals revision with PHD or job applications

 

Even if you accept that the world is your oyster, it’s fine if you don’t really know what an oyster is, how to open it, or what’s best to do with it, but it seems like everyone else does. Realistically, they probably don’t either. Also a disclaimer that writing this may have been on one of my to-do lists as long as my arm and ticking it off is massaging my need to constantly achieve things. Learning to switch off is important, I’m still working on that.

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